We got into a discussion this week at my job about the state of American film comedy. Some of my co-workers were insisting that I see the new Will Ferrell movie, The Campaign, and, honestly, I don't think I've got the gumption to sit through it. Per their requests, I had seen Seth MacFarlane's randy, plush toy comedy, Ted, a few weeks prior, and while I didn't find Ted to be an awful movie by any stretch, I have to admit that I didn't find much of it very funny at all.
So, we were talking about American film comedy, and I started to ruminate on this question: What was the last great American comedy? Was it Bridesmaids? That was almost a year and a half ago. Was it The Hangover? That was nearly two and a half years ago.
Here's a list of comedies that have been released this year: 21 Jump Street, That's My Boy, Ted, The Campaign, Men in Black 3, American Reunion, Wanderlust, The Three Stooges, Mirror Mirror, The Dictator, Project X, This Means War, The Five-Year Engagement, What to Expect When You're Expecting, Dark Shadows, The Watch, Think Like a Man. That's just a sad, little list.
So, what's gone wrong? Why are American film comedies so mediocre?
Well, this is going to be polarizing.
You know how people are always complaining about how Hollywood is creatively bankrupt and too reliant on remakes? I’m curious to see how those people will react to Cloud Atlas, the most wildly ambitious, big-budget movie since Fight Club.
I liked it a lot, but I could easily see how many people will find it off-putting.
I’ve always thought the sports media and the entertainment media had something in common: they both frequently seem to have a general dislike for the subjects about which they’re reporting. It’s a common thing to see ESPN or the E! channel roll out the snark for athletes and entertainers. Legitimate criticism should always be fair game, but there are times when fairness and objectivity get cast aside in favor of a good old-fashioned pile-on.
MINOR SPOILERS BELOW
It’s an old adage of comedy, and I wish I knew who coined it in order to give due credit: Only the truth is funny.
In other words, any sort of material that isn’t based in real, genuine human behavior by definition can’t be funny.
So, when Jonah Hill, playing a cop going undercover as a high school student, has his cover blown by a friend of his mother who a) knows he’s a cop and b) knows he’s working undercover yet continues to blab his real identity to the teenage drug dealers he’s trying to infiltrate leading to Hill shoving her into a department store display, it’s painfully unfunny. The punchline is as cheap as it gets (old lady falls down), but the scene could work by simply making the old lady oblivious to what’s going on. But, the script (by Michael Becall with a story credit to Hill) has established this old lady knows Hill’s character, so her insistence to keep blathering about his undercover status is behavior only motivated to deliver a gag. No human being whose spinal cord is attached to their brain would ever behave this way. It isn’t truthful. And, it’s painfully unfunny.
Backlash is an interesting thing.
It’s always interesting when something in the cultural zeitgeist becomes so successful that the tipping point occurs and people flee the bandwagon they were just crowding. Sometimes, it’s because we just get sick and tired of hearing about a particular thing or event. Sometimes, it’s because, as hipsters, it annoys us when something we used to like becomes popular in the mainstream.
Either way, backlash is almost always unfair.
I’ve always been fascinated by horror movies but, for some reason, never really been much of a fan. I remember being intrigued by Fangoria magazine when I was young, and I love me some monsters. As a kid I had a ton of books about movie monsters, but, for some reason, that’s never translated into an enjoyment of the genre for me as an adult.
There are a couple of reasons for this, I think:
First of all, horror films tend to wallow in human suffering. It’s sort of the point. You can’t really make a horror film without something horrible happening to the characters. A nubile 16-year-old blonde getting disemboweled with a machete? Horrifying! A nubile 16-year-old blonde getting asked to the prom by the perfect boy? Not horrifying! Horror content doesn’t play nice.
MINOR SPOILERS BELOW
Like many people with geek tendencies, I was at a local multiplex the other night for a midnight screening of The Avengers. And, since I have some nice flexibility to my work schedule, I actually took the day off to attend the 14-hour Ultimate Marvel Marathon hosted. For anybody who may not have heard about it, Marvel Comics’ film division hosted a marathon of the five films they produced leading up to The Avengers, with the main event being the screening of the newest film as the clock struck 12:00. Or, in my case, due to technical difficulties, 12:45. (Side bar: Seriously, AMC, you don’t get to scratch your collective head and wonder why people aren’t going to the cinema as much, and then screw the pooch this badly during a heavily promoted event.)
So, yesterday morning, starting at 11:30 a.m., I got to see Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger. It was to say the least a fun day spent in the dark with a room full of strangers. But, seeing the films back-to-back like that provides an opportunity to reflect on some pretty impressive accomplishments Marvel Studios has had in a short time.
One of the great American artists working in any form right now is the comedian Louis C.K. Whether it’s his brilliant and confessional stand-up material or his equally great FX Network series Louie, C.K. is utilizing all of the purposes a joke can have.
All that flowery praise would make it sound like I think Louis C.K. is the heir apparent to a droll wit like Noel Coward. He can be. But, he’s not afraid to go below the belt for a joke either. But, whether he’s working highbrow or blue, there’s no off button to Louis C.K.’s intelligence. Which is awesome, as so many in the comedy world seem to think brains aren’t required for lowbrow humor.
So this is what contracts have brought us to.
A few years back, the gang at Marvel realized there was more money (and more creative control – take that, Fox!) in producing their own films as opposed to signing over the rights of their characters to other studios. Of course, the gang at Marvel is pretty smart, so they had written into their contracts with these various studios that made the character screen rights revert back to Marvel in the event that a studio just sat on a property without making a film from it. This is, of course, how Marvel was able to get the screen rights for the Hulk back from Universal. And, thank God, too. Can you imagine Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie without the Hulk in it?
Long story short, my dad is a Gilmore Girls fan. I was a huge fan of the show, and I somehow talked him into watching it. And, once he gave it a whirl, he loved it. Now, he’s a big fan of Bunheads, the new show from the Gilmore Brain Trust. I was talking to him the other day, and he mentioned that there probably weren’t many men his age (he’s 71) who would watch a show about the goings on at a small town dance studio.
He’s probably right. But, I would argue that any story that is compellingly told should be enjoyable to anybody, regardless of their age, race, sexual orientation, or any other demographic grouping.